Alistair Overeem (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC on ESPN+ 34 Preview and Predictions

Matthew Petela Staff Writer

Former K-1 World Grand Prix, Dream, and Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem steps back into the Octagon four months after his TKO victory over Walt Harris. He takes on rising star Augusto Sakai in the main event of this weekend’s UFC on ESPN+ 34 card. The two hard-hitting big men will look to deliver a performance that solidifies their respective position near the top of the heavyweight division.

Since dropping consecutive fights to Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes, Overeem has won three of his last four contests, including the one against the aforementioned Harris. The Dutch kickboxing legend has seen his fair share of highs and lows inside the cage, where he’s suffered 14 knockout losses while handing out 24 knockouts of his own.

Sakai, too, has shown to be a heavy-handed fighter. He has scored 11 of his 15 professional wins by knockout. His only setback came in a split-decision loss to UFC veteran Cheick Kongo while fighting under the Bellator banner.


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These two heavyweights will attempt to render the judges’ scorecards useless. If Overeem is able to knock out Sakai, he will be the first man to stop the Brazilian fighter. A loss would also put an end to Sakai’s four-fight UFC winning streak that began when he joined the promotion after earning a contract on Dana White’s Contender Series.

Fans will also see the return of former title challenger Ovince St. Preux to the light-heavyweight division. OSP spent just one fight at heavyweight, where he suffered a loss to Ben Rothwell. Now, he returns to the weight class where he had previously spent his entire professional MMA career. His opponent is Alonzo Menifield, who is fighting for the first time since he lost his undefeated status against Devin Clark.

It hasn’t been an easy road inside the UFC for Sijara Eubanks, whose early struggles to make weight cost her an opportunity at the inaugural flyweight championship. With her last win over Sarah Moras, Eubanks improved her UFC record to 3-2. Now, she has a high-profile spot on this fight card as she takes on Karol Rosa. Eubanks was originally scheduled to face Macy Chiasson, but Chiasson pulled out for medical reasons and was replaced by Rosa. Fresh off a victory over Vanessa Melo on Fight Island, Rosa is 2-0 with the UFC and 13-3 overall. Rosa, 25, began her professional career in 2012 and won her first five fights before facing her first setback. Rosa’s profile would immediately rise amongst MMA fans if she finds the win against Eubanks.

Brazilian fighter Michel Pereira also graces this lineup. He takes on Zelim Imadaev as both men look to get back to their winning ways. Pereira (quite literally) jumped onto the UFC scene with a flying-knee knockout over Danny Roberts, but he has since struggled while taking a loss on the scorecards against Tristan Connelly in a fight where his gas tank failed him. Pereira was then disqualified for an illegal knee against Diego Sanchez. When Imadaev entered the UFC, he was undefeated through eight fights. However, he has yet to taste victory with the promotion. Imadaev needs a win over Pereira to show fans he is more than just another international fighter who can’t cut it among the sport’s true elite.

UFC on ESPN+ 34 is the 11th show in total to be held at the UFC Apex and the sixth in as many consecutive weeks. The event airs live on ESPN+, with the prelims set to get underway at 6 p.m. ET. They will be followed at 8 p.m. ET by the main card. Combat Press writers Julius Choi and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Augusto Sakai is quickly climbing the heavyweight ladder. He already holds UFC victories over Andrei Arlovski, Marcin Tybura and Blagoy Ivanov. Is this guy for real, and can he add another significant name to his resume when he clashes with Alistair Overeem on Saturday night?

Choi: After Sakai secured his future with a six-fight contract with his quick work against Tybura about a year ago for his fastest finish inside the Octagon, he earned his biggest test yet in drawing Overeem as an opponent. Sakai, a confident fighter who has won five fights in a row while not having reached his prime, is a dangerous fighter. While getting his hand raised against Overeem on Saturday helps boost his stock, he is still going to have to draw in two or three more fights with top-10 opponents if he wants to fast-track his way up the heavyweight ladder for title-fight considerations.

Even if he ultimately gets in the loss column versus “The Demolition Man,” Sakai will still gain valuable reps inside the Octagon fighting against top-tier talent. This isn’t the first time that he will be asked to perform under pressure. Undefeated in his first 10 fights as a professional, Sakai gave Cheick Kongo a run for his money in a scrap that went the distance at Bellator 179 in 2017. While Sakai was on the wrong end of a split decision, the Brazilian kept his composure and dictated the pace. The then 42-year-old Kongo, who is known for his resiliency, appeared timid and often opted to clinch instead of weathering the thunder storm Sakai possesses in those hands.

Unlike Kongo, Overeem embraces and welcomes the stand-up game, so it would be shocking to see this fight go five rounds. John Kavanagh’s “winning or learning” mantra has made the rounds in the fight world because it is hard to argue against, and it is the mindset Sakai has.

Petela: The most memorable thing about Sakai’s last win, which came against the aforementioned Ivanov, is when the referee somehow missed a fence grab that allowed Sakai to remain on his feet. That grab can’t be underemphasized for the impact it had on the outcome of the fight. Yet, Sakai’s time with the UFC has not been without moments where he looked like a legitimate contender.

Throughout his storied kickboxing and MMA career, Overeem has taken an incredible amount of punishment. In recent years, the question has become whether he has taken too much damage for his own good. However, unlike almost any other fighter, Overeem has shown an ability to rebound from several knockouts and prove that his chin hasn’t deteriorated much at all. That isn’t going to last forever, though. Overeem is now 40 years old, and a knockout threat like Sakai could prove to be one too many for “The Reem.”

However, this won’t be the case just yet. The aforementioned Tybura is no slouch, but he is not on the same level as Overeem. Neither is the version of Arlovski that Sakai beat by split decision. This fight with Overeem will be a real step up in competition, and it’s one that will be too much for Sakai to make right now. Overeem will get a win here, but it will serve as a lesson for Sakai, who will continue to improve and eventually be able to make the leap into the elite realm at heavyweight.

This card features a key fight in the women’s divisions for Sijara Eubanks, a former The Ultimate Fighter contestant who had great success on the reality series. She now sits at just one fight above the .500 mark. Will Eubanks make a statement in her fight on Saturday?

Petela: The weeks Eubanks spent on TUF really was a happier time for her. Her weight-cutting issues leading to kidney failure are well documented and forced her to move back to bantamweight, where she hasn’t had much success.

Despite winning her first two UFC fights, Eubanks has never truly been able to gain much momentum, in large part due to the cloud hanging over her after she was pulled from the TUF 26 Finale and then missed weight in her victory over Roxanne Modafferi. Eubanks is now 1-2 inside the Octagon at bantamweight, but that lone win came in her last bout.

Unfortunately, she won’t be able to right the ship in Las Vegas this weekend. Eubanks meets Karol Rosa, and it is difficult to find an area where Eubanks has a decisive advantage. Both women are black belts in jiu-jitsu, but they have generally found more success on the feet. Rosa is the more experienced fighter, with 16 professional fights. Eubanks, though, has faced the more decorated competition.

Rosa is an up-and-coming fighter ready to take the next step toward contender status, whereas Eubanks is 35 years old and beyond the days of making vast improvements. Rosa will add a fifth straight win to her streak and leave Eubanks to consider what her future holds.

Choi: Eubanks looked good in her last fight against Sarah Moras, but Rosa is a step up in competition. Rosa is slowly making her name known in a division that has been dominated and owned by fellow countrywoman Amanda Nunes. The remaining sand in the hourglass for Eubanks is running out, forcing her into a sink-or-swim situation here.

Alexander Romanov — do we need to know this name?

Choi: Nearly a year after it was confirmed that Romanov would join the UFC roster, his fight against Marcos Rogério de Lima will be his first scrap on international grounds after two scheduled bouts arranged by the brass for earlier this year fell through due to circumstances brought on by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Romanov, a homegrown product of Moldova, spent a majority of his professional career with Eagles Fighting Championship, where he steamrolled every opponent put in his path. He is undefeated in 11 fights, all of which ended in a finish. Before his lone amateur fight in 2011, his first foray into the world of combat sports came in a kickboxing bout in 2006.

His trek to North America to advance his profile will be a crucial pivot point in his career given that he is a relative unknown and considered to be in his athletic prime at the ripe age of 29. The first impression is always an important one regardless of what is on your resume, and Romanov is going to have to win in decisive fashion to prove to UFC President Dana White that he is a valuable asset.

There was no challenger equal to Romanov in Eagles FC, where nine of his contests ended inside the first round. How he responds when he navigates the uncharted territory of fights that go 15 minutes against stiffer competition will provide a litmus test on how long he enjoys a career in fighting.

Romanov summited the Moldovian mountaintop two years ago by claiming the vacant heavyweight title against Alexander Stolyarov. The odds were stacked against him versus an adversary who had 20 more fights under his belt at the time and stood as the biggest man Romanov had ever shared the cage with during his time in the sport. Those doubts were pierced in a matter of seconds by triumphant screams following a barrage of strikes, ensuing in a celebration that would make Chuck Liddell proud.

For as terrifying as Romanov may be on paper, he will be pitted up against an opponent who has a chip on his shoulder. After being outclassed by Stefan Struve and Ovince St. Preux, the 35-year-old de Lima is fresh off a TKO finish of Ben Sosoli from earlier this year. The Brazilian is poised to build up some momentum after not being able to string victories together since a six-fight run from 2012 through 2014 that preceded his arrival in the UFC.

Petela: Fans should absolutely know Romanov’s name. He is a devastating finisher with four knockouts and seven submissions on his record. Most recently, he picked up a slam knockout over Sergio Freitas.

Romanov is deceptively smooth on his feet and on the mat, despite not having the prototypical physique of a cage fighter. The UFC will be a major step up in competition for him, and we can’t know if he will emerge as a potential contender until we see him in action a couple times. However, rest assured that his fights will deliver the highest level of entertainment.

What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?

Petela: Zelim Iamdaev. His first fight in the UFC was a disappointing majority-decision loss to Max Griffin in a close contest. He was unable to right the ship in his second outing, where he was knocked out by Danny Roberts near the end of the second round. Even under the weird circumstances in the combat-sports world right now, an 0-3 to start his tenure won’t give Imadaev much hope that the UFC will want to keep him around. Compound that with a fight against the wild man Michel Pereira, who can add insult to injury with his unorthodox yet devastating striking, and the odds are firmly against Imadaev hanging onto his contract. He will end up being another fighter on the wrong end of a highlight-reel knockout before he’s sent back to a smaller promotion.

Choi: Marcos Rogério de Lima. The Brazilian has no problem winning in impressive fashion and rebounded well after losing against steeper competition like Stefan Struve and Ovince St. Preux. He needs to work to build upon the momentum he garnered with his victory over Ben Sosoli. That being said, a win over Romanov, an undefeated fighter and newcomer to the UFC, would be a boost of confidence and a welcome sign.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Choi: Thiago Moises and Jalin Turner.

The simple fact that both of these fighters need a win but only one will get the desired outcome is what makes this tilt an interesting one. While the pair caught the attention of Dana White on the Contender Series in 2018, how Moises will follow up his performance after submitting Michael Johnson via an ankle lock in May has many curious of what happens when you put two people who are chomping at the bit for a more favorable position in the standings.

Turner has hit a groove as of late, gobbling up finishes in the opening round in two of his last three fights. He is much bigger than Moises, too, and has a five-inch reach advantage. It will be crucial for them to monitor what they see in each other’s strategy in the opening round and adjust their game plans accordingly.

Petela: Montana De La Rosa and Viviane Araujo.

De La Rosa’s lone setback came in her fight with Andrea “KGB” Lee, but she bounced back with an ultra-impressive win against Maria Romero Borella to improve her official UFC record to 4-1. The ceiling is very high on De La Rosa, who is only 25 years old and should continue her rise at flyweight. Araujo is 1-1 inside the UFC, but her loss came against former title challenger Jessica Eye, who missed weight badly. It is tough to hold much against Araujo for that fight. The 33-year-old defeated Alexis Davis in her flyweight debut and is still constantly improving. This one should be a fun stylistic match-up between De La Rosa, who has a background as a wrestler, and Araujo, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the legendary Leozinho.


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Pair this card with…

Petela: Leftovers. This card is made up of a number of fights that have been scheduled for earlier events before they were rebooked for various reasons. I’ll admit I am not a fan of leftovers, but this will be more in line with my Dad’s opinion that nearly everything tastes better the next day. Several fights on this card will deliver high-level entertainment, and the rescheduling will end up being a good thing, because fans will get to see these showdowns on a night that looks sloppily thrown together but ends up being memorable from top to bottom.

Choi: Darts. In the new normal of the current pandemic, get in the spirit of picking up a new hobby. Before every fight, throw a single dart at the board and play battleships. If you miss the board and the match-up turned out better than expected, you have to go for a run for five minutes. If you hit the bullseye and it accurately described the fight, do push-ups till failure. Am I trying to look like Yoel Romero before the world properly aligns with our intended plans? Yes. Also, how can you feel content with your life when you see Tony Ferguson training like he’s going to be on American Ninja Warrior? My brain is trained to expect the unexpected, so we could have fireworks in September with this card in theory.

Fight Picks

Fight Choi’s Pick Petela’s Pick
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Alistair Overeem vs. Augusto Sakai Sakai Overeem
LHW: Ovince St. Preux vs. Alonzo Menifield St. Preux St. Preux
Women’s BW: Sijara Eubanks vs. Karol Rosa Rosa Rosa
WW: Michel Pereira vs. Zelim Imadaev Imadaev Pereira
LW: Thiago Moises vs. Jalin Turner Turner Turner
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 6 p.m. ET)
MW: Bartosz Fabiński vs. André Muniz Muniz Fabiński
Women’s FlyW: Montana De La Rosa vs. Viviane Araujo De La Rosa De La Rosa
HW: Marcos Rogério de Lima vs. Alexander Romanov de Lima Romanov
BW: Cole Smith vs. Hunter Azure Azure Smith
FW: Kevin Natividad vs. Brian Kelleher Kelleher Kelleher